In a normal year, the Australian Open would start two weeks into the tennis season—but 2021 isn’t going to be a normal year by any means, and due to international travel restrictions and quarantining regulations caused by COVID-19, the Happy Slam is scheduled to begin the week of February 8th.
But it’s going to be worth the wait, as it could be the most historic Australian Open in a long time.
While the Grand Slam race between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal—and potentially even Novak Djokovic—will be a hot topic at the Slams throughout the year, it’s going to heat up right away in Melbourne next month, because if Nadal wins the title, he’ll set the new all-time men’s record.
The two are currently tied for the record with 20 Grand Slam titles apiece—Nadal actually tied Federer’s record at the last major, Roland Garros, after which the Swiss only had kind words for him.
“As everybody knows, we have a very, very good relationship. We respect each other a lot,” Nadal said. “At the same time, in some way, I think he’s happy when I’m winning, and I’m happy when he’s doing the things well. It means a lot, the positive relationship we have together, because we have been going through a great rivalry for a very, very long time. Yeah, can just say thanks to him.”
A few weeks ago it was announced Federer would miss the Australian Open—a tournament he’s won six times before, and twice in the last four years—as he continues to recover from a right knee injury. That means one of Nadal’s biggest obstacles won’t be in his way as he goes for a record 21st major—he leads their overall head-to-head, 24-16, but Federer’s won six of their last seven meetings.
But, curiously, the Happy Slam has been Nadal’s unhappiest major. He’s won two Wimbledons, four US Opens and a ridiculous 13 French Opens, but he’s only won the Australian Open once, and that came all the way back in 2009—he also had to win back-to-back five-setters in the semifinals and final to do it. He’s been to the quarterfinals or better in nine of his 10 appearances since that triumph, including four more finals in 2012, 2014, 2017 and 2019, but he went home without the trophy every time.
The Spaniard never backs down from a fight, though. “My goal is always the same: to go to every tournament and to give myself a chance to compete well and to try to win it,” he said at the ATP Finals in November. “That’s the goal of every year. My motivation has always been the same. Next year is going to be an important year. I hope to be ready to fight for the things that I want to fight for.”
Of course, if he doesn’t do it at the Australian Open, Roland Garros is right around the corner…
But while Nadal is clearly in a strong position to take the lead in the Grand Slam race in Melbourne or Paris, it’s never wise to count Federer out. If the Swiss plays Roland Garros he’s always in with a shot there, having won it in 2009 and reaching four more finals there in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2011. And then comes Wimbledon, which he’s won eight times, and the US Open, where he’s won five times.
After reaching the semifinals of the last Grand Slam he played, the 2020 Australian Open, the Swiss was asked if he believed he could win more majors. “Yes, I do believe that,” he said. “I think by having the year that I had last year, also with what I have in my game, how I’m playing, I do feel that, yeah.”
There’s also a wild card in the Grand Slam race in 2021: Djokovic. With 17 majors, he’s three behind Federer and Nadal—but he’s swept four in a row before, winning Wimbledon and the US Open in 2015 then the Australian Open and Roland Garros in 2016, so it’s not unprecedented that he could jump past the other two members of the Big 3 and end up in the lead with 21 by the end of the year.
The Serb, who’s won five of the last nine majors and 16 of the last 39, also has eyes on the record.
“Obviously at this stage of my career, Grand Slams are the ones I value the most,” he said after winning his eighth Australian Open in 2020. “They are the ones I prioritize—before the season starts I try to set my form for these events, where I can be at my prime tennis, mental and physical abilities.”
It's anyone's guess who will be in the lead at the end of 2021, but it'll definitely be fun to watch.